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Review of "Leaving You"

By Lisa J. Lieberman
Ivan R Dee, 2003
Review by Michael Cholbi, Ph.D. on Dec 3rd 2003
Leaving You

Condemned to exile on a flimsy charge of corrupting the youth and spreading false religion, Socrates, that most revered figure of Western philosophy, took his own life, not only sealing his place in the pantheon of intellectuals zealously devoted to the truth, but also denying his Athenian accusers the opportunity to inflict injustice upon him.

Lisa Lieberman bemoans the decline of Socratic suicide: suicide undertaken rationally and honorably, a gesture of defiance against authority or an assertion of one's integrity or identity in a flawed world.  Gone are Samson, Lucretius, and Cato.  In their stead is a conception of suicide as an essentially private act undertaken by a person afflicted with depression or other mental illness, an act with little personal responsibility and even less political significance.  The suicides of those attempting to regain their dignity (such as those of Holocaust survivors Primo Levi and Bruno Bettelheim) are now the rare exception to the trend of "medicalizing" suicide so as to rob of its potential for rebellion, aggression, and disruption.

Leaving You is the history of this transition in Western thinking about suicide, in which suicide shakes off its relationship to the polity and becomes symptomatic of blameless victimization.  Though Lieberman traces the beginnings of this transition to the early Christian condemnation of suicide as contrary to divine authority, her focus falls on the anxieties suicide produced in the emerging European Enlightenment democracies.  The success of these democracies was widely seen as depending on the proper use of the liberties they afforded their citizens, liberties which citizens were obliged to exercise not only self-interestedly but also virtuously.  Suicide came to represent an "abuse" of democratic liberty, a failure to exhibit the Tocquevillean civic virtue needed for self-government.  These factors, combined with the emergence of a science of mental health, are the chief causes of this transition in Western thinking about suicide, according to Lieberman.

The eighteenth century French philosophes recognized early on that suicide took on a distinctly political meaning within democratic communities.  Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, French authorities were fixated on the manie du suicide that seemed to coincide with the emergence of an urbanized and mobile society.  Suicide became a subject of medical and bureaucratic concern.  It became understood as a contagion linked to the level of "social dysfunction," (36) thus requiring the skills of sociologists and alienists to trace its respective "outer" and "inner" causes.  Lieberman sees in early modern France the development of a conception of suicide as a blameless malady lacking in volition and traceable to alienation and other social forces.  This understanding reached its zenith in the work of Durkheim, Laplace, and Comte.  Suicide, according to many French intellectuals of the time, was a sign of France's decline, just as it signaled the decline of classical Rome. 

Lieberman finds a mirror of this transition in the literary narratives of the era.  Rousseau's Nouvelle Heloise offered an early example of a new model of suicide: the romantic, tortured soul maltreated by circumstance.  In the end, Rousseau manages to suggest that such suicide was simply petulant and temperamental.  Liberty was a burden that demanded fortitude lest it be overwhelmed by passions.  Rousseau, by emphasizing social duty over personal fulfillment, affirmed that life in a democratic society demanded a disciplined use of personal freedom even though "human nature often fell short of this moral standard."  Lieberman notes a gendered version of this dynamic in Flaubert's Madame Bovary:  The novel was read as an example of uppity female behavior, a bid for power and a rejection of bourgeois matrimony.  Suicide, for Emma Bovary and for Flaubert's audience, becomes a weapon wielded against patriarchal society.

According to Lieberman, romantic suicide of the "goodbye cruel world" variety became a standard "script" for suicide in the nineteenth century.  In suicide notes and memoirs, suicidal individuals came to adopt the language of such works as Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, practically savoring and wallowing in their romantic sorrows.  These individuals adopt a largely passive tone, describing suicide as the inevitable consequence of a fragile soul's being battered about by a capricious lover.  For Lieberman, the romantic suicide script served a double role: The suicidal individual was able to "construct an identity" as a soul ill-suited to live in a harsh world, even if her motives were transparently less noble (dishonesty, self-pity, malice, etc.).  For the 'audience,' this script absolved them of responsibility, since the suicide could be viewed as either the result of insanity or impersonal social forces.  This romantic script is still with us, Lieberman notes.  William Styron indulges in it in Darkness Visible, and the interest in the suicide of Sylvia Plath indicates its continuing allure.

Leaving You offers a richly textured historical narrative, and Lieberman displays a great facility at synthesizing disparate sources of evidence into a compelling explanation of how Western culture has revised its understanding of suicide.  But it is a greatly limited narrative.  First, Lieberman promises that her narrative will illuminate "our reigning perception of suicide."  Yet Leaving You is almost completely concerned with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and with developments in France at that.  There is not a single reference to research on suicide after 1900.  Hence, I have doubts that Lieberman has much to tell us about what 'we' think about suicide and how we came to think it.  A number of competing views of suicide co-exist in our culture: One is the victimization paradigm so vividly traced by Lieberman.  But there are others: suicide as usurpation of God's power, as a rational response to trying circumstances, as the utterly predictable result of persistent mental illness.  None of these views dominates and they are inconsistent with one another. 

This indicates a second limitation of Lieberman's book: It is not a book about suicide, but about the evolution of the cultural meanings of suicide.  And it is not mere arrogance to say that we now understand the origins of suicide better than we ever have, even if the typical popular understandings of suicide lag behind this knowledge.  We now understand the intimate relationship between suicide and affective mental disorders, the ways in which such disorders impact the psyche of suicidal persons, and the neurological and social factors that encourage such disorders.  This is not to assert that suicidology has been so successful that its demise is now imminent.  Lieberman seems to implicitly endorse a methodological precept widely accepted within the discipline of cultural studies: that cultural understandings of a phenomenon is all the "truth" there is about a phenomenon.  While we should be mindful of the impact that cultural understandings of suicide have toward our scientific theories about it, this is not reason to doubt that our scientific understanding of suicide is stronger now than ever and likely to deepen.

Thus, I am less sanguine about Lieberman's affection for the now lost picture of suicide as a defiant political gesture.   Lieberman herself struggles to find examples that truly follow this model, and I would suggest that Socrates is the exception rather than the rule concerning the motivations for suicide.  If suicide never really was a defiant political gesture, why should we lament the demise of this understanding of suicide? 

Finally, a worry about the practical significance of Leaving You: Lieberman appears to subscribe to the thesis that the more we medicalize suicide, the more we rob the suicidal of their volition and autonomy.  This is problematic on two fronts:  One, it assumes that suicidal individuals are acting autonomously and of their volition.  This is at least debatable.  Second, the medicalization of suicide, and of mental illness generally, has occasionally led to abuses and violations of autonomy, including forced institutionalization and medication, etc.  But these are not the fault of our attempts to identify the causal factors, whether they be biological or social, that contribute to suicidal behavior.  They are failures of practice, not of theory per se, and to investigate the causes of suicide can only lead to more humane and more ethical societal responses to suicide and need not undermine the autonomy of the suicidal.

These concerns notwithstanding, Leaving You performs one of the great services of history.  By reminding us of the contingency of our beliefs and practices, it stimulates us to reflect upon the legitimacy of those beliefs and practices.  Suicide can't help but generate uneasiness in us, Lieberman rightly claims.  For it runs counter to many of our most cherished beliefs and hopes about humanity.  Lieberman's book will help to illuminate the sources of this uneasiness.


© 2003 Michael Cholbi


Michael Cholbi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Philosophy, California State Polytechnic University at Pomona

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